SARANAC LAKE - They're not just chickens. They're a statement about sustainability, a tool to foster community and an invitation to others to try raising their own.
That's what Chancery Perks says.
Perks, a 21-year-old Paul Smith's College student, is keeping three chickens at 110 Petrova Ave., just behind the field of the elementary-middle school. Well, he was, until he jetted off to Iceland last month, where he is working with people in a small ecovillage call Solheimar to plant a forest. Now his housemates are looking after his feathery friends for the summer.
These three chickens are stirring up the neighborhood on Petrova Avenue.
(Enterprise photos — Jessica Collier)
At a time when the issue of farm animals on village land is becoming more and more divisive, with the village of Tupper Lake working to outlaw them, Perks and his housemates are trying to use their birds to spread the word that farm animals can be good for a community.
The chickens are mutts, Perks said in an interview from Iceland over Skype, an Internet phone service. Two are black and one is golden with speckles.
The female chickens all have male names: Swayze, after Patrick Swayze; seidenstein, after Bob Seidenstein, a Paul Smith's College professor (and Enterprise columnist); and Rumplestiltskin, after the fairy tale character. Perks said he wanted names that were ironic and funny.
"Patrick Swayze, I think, is a perfect chicken name," said Perks. "You've got this sexy, dancing guy, and then it's a chicken."
Seidenstein, who taught Perks and several of the housemates at Paul Smith's, said he is proud to have a chicken for his namesake.
"I've never had anything named after me," said Seidenstein.
Perks is a supporter of the Transition Towns movement, which looks to find ways to build self-reliant communities in anticipation of projected reductions in energy resources. He said he wanted the chickens so he and his housemates could become more self-reliant.
The chickens are helping the residents of 110 Petrova inch toward self-reliance in a few ways. They use the manure for fertilizer to help grow their herb garden, and plan to use it for more plants in the future. The chickens also spend a lot of time on the front lawn pulling out weeds, pecking at grass and devouring the bugs and worms they find there, which eliminates the need for a lawn mower and pesticides.
And, of course, there are the eggs. As far as any of them can remember, they haven't had to buy eggs since the chickens moved in.
Luke Dumas, a 110 Petrova resident originally from Saranac, was a culinary student at Paul Smith's, so he's been having fun with the abundance of eggs.
"I get to explore all sorts of different egg cookery options these days," said Dumas.
He said that when it was colder out, there would be maybe one or two eggs in the coop every morning; now that it has warmed up, there are three eggs waiting for them every morning.
"I roll up out of bed and go rustle around in the coop for breakfast," said Dumas.
In the fall, since they don't want to build an indoor coop that would smell up the house, the Petrova Avenue residents plan to kill and eat the birds.
"That's part of the process," Dumas said. To anyone that might have a problem with it, "You've got to get over it."
All that self-sustainability comes at a pretty low price. Perks got the chickens from a man on the outskirts of Tupper Lake.
"The guy asked $5 a bird," said Perks. "I handed him a 20 (dollar bill) and said, 'Have a nice day.'"
Perks said the man took about 45 minutes to teach him about raising chickens - how much to feed them, how to take care of them - and he considered that far more valuable than the extra $5 he threw the man's way.
"He did what a neighbor should do; he taught me," Perks said.
Back at 110 Petrova, Perks built a coop for them to sleep in at night and a wire mesh contraption called a "tractor" for them to spend time in during the day from scraps found around the house and yard. It can be moved around to evenly distribute wear on the lawn.
The birds eat so many plants and pests that they only require about 4 to 6 ounces of Blue Seal Home Fresh grain pellets a day. Perks bought one big bag when he first got the chickens, and his housemates said it would likely last until the fall.
"Between everything, I don't think he spent more than $40 or $50," said housemate James Gregory.
One of the most important elements of sustainability is developing a strong community and a good relationship with neighbors, said Perks. People who live in a self-contained community need to rely on help from neighbors for food and other resources.
"Without community, without individuals being on the same page, we're not going to get things done," said Perks.
That's why he likes to give eggs to his neighbors and others who stop by to look at the birds. He said he likes to teach people about them as well.
Quite a few people have approached him to ask about the chickens, Perks said, and several have said they would like to start raising chickens themselves.
Perks said another good way to develop a strong community is to build a strong community identity. That's why he stuck a flag with a P for Petrova on it out of the top of the tractor. (The fact that his last name also starts with a P is just a coincidence, said Perks.)
In order to be a good member of the community, Perks said he tried to be considerate of his neighbors every step of the way. He only bought three chickens to keep down the noise and the smell, avoided buying a rooster because they are much louder than chickens, and built the tractor in a way he hoped would be visually pleasing.
Though he wanted the chickens to help him build a strong relationship with his neighbors, not all of them have been supportive.
One neighbor two houses down found Swayze, seidenstein and Rumplestiltskin outside his house one day. The neighbor told the 110 Petrova residents that he wasn't happy about having chickens in the neighborhood.
"He says, 'They don't belong; they just don't belong in the city,'" said Dumas.
The neighbor, who asked not to be named for fear of being hassled, said he knew of at least two other neighborhood residents who had a problem with the chickens, but he would not name them.
Perks said that if the neighbor had a good reason to be displeased with the chickens, he would be very willing to have a discussion with him. He said, however, the neighbor "has no debate as to why live chickens are wrong."
In Tupper Lake, the village Board of Trustees is working on altering its land-use map to disallow any new farm animals to be kept within the village limits. As the code stands now, people who want farm animals already need a special-use permits.
Saranac Lake's code only requires that chickens be penned in or under control, said village Code Enforcement Officer Doug Fransen.
"I think it's something that may have been overlooked in previous updates of the code," said Fransen.
Fransen said that he has not been getting complaints about the chickens on Petrova Avenue, and the lack of code addressing farm animals has not yet been a problem but could become one.
He said the village will be reworking its code over the next few months and that the new code may include more restrictions on farm animals.
"I think, years ago when (the old code) was written, (allowing farm animals in the village) might have been the right thing, but I don't believe it is anymore," said Fransen.
But he added that adding farm animals to the list of restricted or outlawed things in the village would make his job more difficult.
Perks said he thinks outlawing farm animals is unnecessary.
"That's a lack of communication is what that is," said Perks.
If a neighbor has a problem with the animals, the neighbor should talk to the animal owner about it, he said. He said the fact that people make laws rather than talking to one another to work out a compromise is proof of the lack of community of which he speaks.
"Certainly, to outlaw our little bird friends is a mistake," said Dumas.
Contact Jessica Collier at 891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.